For the first time since Major League Baseball adopted divisional play in 1969, the winners of the last two World Series championships will meet in a League Championship Series. The NL West champions, the San Francisco Giants (94-68, 3-2) will meet the surviving Wild Card winner, the St. Louis Cardinals (88-74, 1-0, 3-2). Since San Francisco is the higher seed, they will own the home field advantage in this seven game series.
The Cardinals clearly have the advantage in this series with their recent post-season experience.
Ahhh, not so fast. While there has been some turnover in the Giants roster since winning the 2010 World Series, most of that outstanding pitching staff is still in place. Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey both have more experience now and Posey is looking every bit the impact player we all thought he would be in his rookie season. They have also added some veteran depth including Ryan Theriot, Melky Cabrera, Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan. Rounding out their starting lineup are a pair of youngsters, Brandon Crawford (SS) and Brandon Belt (1B).
Oh, but the Cardinals are the comeback kids, especially after that thrilling Game Five win in Washington, so they have the edge there.
Ummm, no. While the Cardinals do have a track record of amazing comebacks, remember that these Giants lost the first two games of the divisional series at home. In order to move on to the NLCS, they had to go into Cincinnati and win all three games at Great America Ball Park, and they did exactly that.
Even more than the three game sweep, it is how they won those three games that should give some insight into the grittiness of this team. Game three was a thrilling extra inning affair with the Giants winning 2-1 in 10 innings. Game Four was an offensive explosion with home runs from three different Giants. In the decisive Game Five, a six run outburst in the fifth inning, including a grand slam by Buster Posey, was the difference as the Giants bullpen made that lead hold up.
Oh, but starting pitching. No. When you have Tim Lincecum start the series in the bullpen, that tells you what Giants manager, Bruce Bochy, thinks of Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito and Matt Cain. The same can be said of the two bullpens. The Cardinals have some electric arms, but only have a single lefty. The Giants pen is more balanced and Bruce Bochy can afford to use more situational lefty/lefty matchups thanks to some depth on the left side.
What about head to head matchups ? Surely, one team has an edge, right ? Nope, the two teams played six times with each team winning three. Don’t ask about home field advantage either – the teams also split that, each team winning once in San Francisco and twice in St. Louis.
If the Cardinals hold any advantage, it will be on the offensive side of the game. Thanks to Giants blogger, Julian at giantsnirvana.com, we have learned that since 1901, there are only five teams with 5 players finishing the season with an OPS+ (on base percentage plus slugging, adjusted to league average) of 127 or greater. One of those teams is the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. The five are Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese – the 2nd through 6th place hitters. The other four teams were the 1953 Dodgers, 1970 Giants, 1978 Brewers and the 1987 Tigers. If you were wondering, the 2011 Cardinals team only had three such players: Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.
Before Cardinals fans get too carried away, the Giants are much better at grinding out out close games, which playoff series tend to produce, plus their manager, Bruce Bochy, is a veteran of 18 seasons with 2 NL Pennants and 1 World Series Championship. Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, once coached little league.
The Cardinals and Giants have met twice before in postseason.
In 1987, a severely limping Cardinals team defeated the heavily favored “Hum Baby” Giants in seven games. Without Jack Clark and later, Terry Pendleton, the Cardinals firepower was reduced to nil, requiring them to use their speed and defense to beat Jeffrey Leonard, Kevin Mitchell, Will Clark, Chili Davis and Candy Moldanado. The difference in the series was a bloop single by Cards Game One starter, Greg Mathews, a short-lived offensive burst thanks to Bob Forsh hitting Jeffrey Leonard with a pitch, a defensive miscue by Candy Moldanado and a three run homer by Jose Oquendo. The best player on either team was Jeffrey Leonard, who was awarded the NLCS Most Valuable Player award in the losing effort, the last player on a losing team to win the award.
The 2002 NLCS matchup might give us some better indication about how this series might go. Unlike the ’87 series, these two ball clubs matched up closely to a man. The five game series win by the Giants hides how close these games were. The Cardinals actually outhit the Giants, but were unable to get the big hit. The Giants won by being just one step faster, making one more play, and getting that key hit.
In that series, the Cardinals strategy was not to let Barry Bonds beat them, walking him 10 times in those five games. Some other player would have to beat them, and both Benito Santiago and Rich Aurilia did just that. Rich Aurilia’s home runs came at a frightening pace and Benito Santiago always came through with a key hit. Santiago was awarded the NLCS MVP, although it could have just as easily been given to Aurilia.
Game 1 – Sunday, October 14 – 7:00pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR)
Lance Lynn (18-7, 3.78 ERA) vs Madison Bumgarner (16-11, 3.37 ERA)
Since each of the divisional series went the full five games, neither manager will be heading into the NLCS with their prefered starting pitcher sequence. The Giants will only face Adam Wainwright once, and the Cardinals will get Matt Cain once, maybe twice. Both rotations have enough depth to win in spite of this less than optimal scheduling.
For the Cardinals, Lance Lynn will be replacing the injured Jaime Garcia. Lynn was dominating early in the season, but had a sharp drop off following the All Star break. After a short time in the bullpen, he returned to the rotation to finish the regular season and pitched as he had earlier. In the divisional series, he had mixed results. He was good in relief of Jaime Garcia in Game Two, but also gave up the winning run in Game Four. By Lynn starting in Game One, the rest of the Cardinals starters will be pitching on normal rest. If Mike Matheny can get a solid five innings out of Lynn, this will be a huge plus.
As with Lance Lynn, Madison Bumgarner was very effective early in the season. Perhaps a bit more troubling is that Bumgarner’s drop off happened at the end of the season and has largely continued in the divisional series. He was 2-2 in September with a 5.47 ERA and took the loss in Game Two of the NLDS, not getting out of the fifth inning.
This could be a game where both starters make an early exit and the two bullpens determine who wins and loses.
Late update: As expected, both starters ran into trouble in the early going. Each of the bullpens were brilliant, putting up scoreless inning after scoreless inning. The Giants were unable to overcome an early 6-0 deficit and dropped the first game by the score of 6-4.
Game 2 – Monday, October 15 – 7:00pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR)
Chris Carpenter (0-2, 3.71) vs Ryan Vogelsong (14-9, 3.37)
For somebody that was not supposed to pitch in 2012, Chris Carpenter looks very sharp. He seems to be getting stronger with each outing, his velocity and command are improving as well. He was the victim of a pair of hard luck losses in September, but took the win in Game Three of the NLDS, throwing 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
Ryan Vogelsong continues to defy Father Time as he turned in another great performance in 2012. He was the picture of consistency, win a couple, lose a couple, win a couple, lose a couple. If there is a concern, it would be his inability to get deep into games. While that does put a strain on the bullpen, Vogelsong gave up just one run in each of his last 4 starts, including a Game Three win in Cincinnati. He may not eat up a lot of innings, but you can count on him keeping the game close, and that benefits the Giants.
If Bruce Bochy or Mike Matheny have to burn their bullpen in Game One, that could be a factor late in this game.
Game 3 – Wednesday, October 17 – 3:00pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR)
Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) vs Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79)
This will be a battle of two of the best right handers in the National League. For Kyle Lohse, this has been a career year. For Matt Cain, it is just another season of brilliant pitching. Cain struggled in his two starts in the divisional series, having a bit of a problem with the long ball. Getting an afternoon start in St. Louis, with the odd shadows, should help him keep the ball in the park.
For Lohse, the key to success will be keeping the Giants left handed batters off balance, meaning lots of change ups up and down, inside and outside. Like Cain, Lohse is also vulnerable to giving up home runs, making it imperative that when he does give one up, it is just a solo home run.
In his two postseason starts, Lohse has been as good as in the regular season, if not a wee bit better. He got the win in the first Wild Card Play-in game in Atlanta and received a no-decision in Game Four of the NLDS, where he threw for seven innings, giving up 1 run on just 2 hits.
Game 4 – Thursday, October 18 – 7:00pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR)
Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94) vs TBD
Adam Wainwright has made two post-season starts, receiving no-decisions in each. Wainwright has extra motivation in this start as he looks to avenge his last start, giving up six runs in 2 1/3 innings in Washington. Pitching in St. Louis should be give him a big lift.
Bruce Bochy will not name his Game Four starter until the series moves to St. Louis. His choices are Barry Zito (LHP), Tim Lincecum (RHP) or bringing Madison Bumgarner (LHP) back on short rest. Given the right handed strength of the Cardinals lineup and how well Lincecum pitched in the divisional series, he will likely get the start.
From this point on, the probable starters begin to get a little fuzzy. Assuming that neither manager alters their rotation, it could look like this.
Game 5 – Friday, October 19 – 7:00pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR) if needed
Lance Lynn vs Madison Bumgarner
Game 6 – Sunday, October 21 – 3:30pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR) if needed
Chris Carpenter vs Ryan Vogelsong
Game 7 – Monday, October 22 – 7:00pm CDT (TV: Fox, Radio: KMOX, KNBR) if needed
Kyle Lohse vs Matt Cain
Who’s Hot – Cardinals
Carlos Beltran – .444/ .542 / .944 (that is a slugging percentage, not an OPS). Beltran is on fire, going 8-18 against Washington, with 3 doubles, 2 home runs and 4 RBIs. His lead off double in the ninth inning of Game Five started an amazing 4 run rally that put the Cardinals in the NLCS.
David Freese – .421 / .500 / .579. It is post-season which means David Freese heats up. He also collected 8 hits, but it was his patience at the plate late in Game Five, drawing an important walk, that kept the rally going.
Allen Craig – .316 / .435 / .579. Craig continues to be the best player that nobody has heard of.
Daniel Descalso – .316 / .333 / .684. Descalso led the Cardinals with 6 RBIs in the divisional series. He also hit two home runs to go along with a double. If he stays hot, the Giants will have their hands full.
Pete Kozma – He only hit .250 in the divisional series, but his 5 RBIs was second only to Daniel Descalso’s 6. Kozma continues to get key hits, play good defense and use his speed when on base. He has been a very pleasant surprise in what has traditionally been a dead spot in the lineup.
Trevor Rosenthal – in his 3 1/3 innings in the divisional series, he faced just 11 batters. He struck out 6 while allowing just one base runner, a single by Ryan Zimmerman. He overpowered the Nationals hitters with his 100mph fastball and 83mph curve. He also has a slider, but hasn’t had much reason to show it, yet.
Who’s Not – Cardinals
Matt Holliday – .190 / .292 / .238. Holliday continues to expand the strike zone while staring at called third strikes. We know that he can turn red hot in a single at bat and carry the team for weeks at a time. So far he hasn’t had to do that.
Lance Lynn – 1-1 8.10 ERA. His high ERA is more a case of few innings worked, but in those innings, he allowed far too many runs to score. He will have to shake off his last appearance, giving up a game winning home run to Jayson Werth, if he is to be effective in the rotation.
Who’s Hot – Giants
Pablo Sandoval – .333 / .318 / .571 – the Cincinnati Reds were effective against the Giants hitters. Sandoval led the Giants with 7 hits.
Buster Posey – .211 / .318 / .526 – Posey was another one that the Reds kept in check, but he was the hottest hitter in the second half of the regular season, so we will give him a pass for the NLDS. His grand slam in Game Five proved to be the game winner, showing that he can hurt you any time he steps into the batters box.
Tim Lincecum – 1-0, 1.42 ERA. Lincecum was second on the Giants staff in innings pitched in spite of appearing only in relief. In 6 1/3 innings, he stuck out 8 while walking none and allowing just three hits. That’s why we will likely see him as the Game Four starter.
George Kontos and Jeremy Affeld – both threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the divisional series. They will be the late innings bridge to the closer, Sergio Romo.
Who’s Not – Giants
Brandon Belt – Belt went 1-13 against the Reds while striking out 7 times.
Madison Bumgarner – 0-1, 8.31 ERA. In one start, the young lefty lasted 4 1/3 innings, giving up 4 runs on seven hits.
Barry Zito – the veteran lefty made just one start and lasted 2 2/3 innings. Given the Cardinals power from the right side, and Zito’s unpredictability, he might find himself as a long man in the bullpen.
Twitter Follows – Cardinals
@tortycraig (back for a second season of long johns and sprinkles)
and the the hashtags #stlcards and #12in12
Twitter Follows – Giants
@kocakwords (author of the incredible book, Baseball’s Starry Night)
and their hashtag is #sfgiants
This preview has been brought to you by Bob Netherton, who writes mainly historical stories at On The Outside Corner – http://ontheoutsidecorner.wordpress.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @Cardinaltales
Thank you, and Go Cardinals!